Attentive Reading

During this odd time of social isolation I find myself picking up books that have been in my stack either unread or partially read for some time. Oddly, the last two revolve around the great tragedies of the last centuries; the “transatlantic” slave trade and the exterminations of World War II. They are slim volumes that would be read quickly if they were less important or less affecting.

Barracoon, just completed, is a non-fiction work written by Zora Neale Hurston begun in 1927. It was extremely difficult for her to find a publisher and this is a re-issued version with a foreword by Alice Walker. Hurston, a cultural anthropologist, managed to find the last survivor of the last African slave cargo ship brought to America. The book is the story of this survivor, of how he was taken and how he was living then and in that present time in America. Barracoon was the word for the slave barracks where slaves were held for transport and sale. The book is resonant with a sorrow I cannot begin to understand. It is written exactly as she heard him speak, in a difficult pidgeon. And so it requires close concentration to get the meaning. I am generally a fast reader but this held me to a slower, more attentive pace. It is a heartbreaking account of a tragic life, ripped from his home and family, sold into slavery, finding a way to live in “freedom”, losing his wife and all his children. This is his account of heartbreak in his simple, affecting words; of looking across to the hill where his entire Americky family lay buried at the time he recounted his story to Hurston. This pierces the heart of the African American identity in a visceral and personal way. This is not an observer account, it is a subjective memoir spoken in his own voice with very little interjection by the “author”. Everyone should read this as a stepping stone to some small understanding.

And then, as if this wasn’t sufficient sorrow, I picked up Night by Elie Wiesel. This was the first thing he wrote, again reissued. It wasn’t popular when published as nobody wanted to acknowledge the truth of the european extermination. It is his first hand account of the time that, in denial still, his community was first turned into ghetto and later emptied of Jews, transported first to Birkenau, then dispersed to the ovens or work camps. It is his first hand account of the last time he saw his neighbors, loaded into cattle cars, and then his own family’s journey. It is his account of the last time he saw his mother and his seven year old sister as they walked to the crematorium. It is his account of witnessing his father’s death. It is his account of his loss of youth and faith and humanity. I have stood in the crematorium at Birkenau, remarkably intact. I have stood in the ruins at Dachau. And as much as I felt the presence of what happened in those places, and have seen the evidence – the coats, the hair, the shoes – I still cannot truly imagine the horror and enormity of the evil. He describes watching truckloads of babies being loaded into the fire, how do you survive the memory of that? For some reason, one of the most compelling images in this slim volume is of Jews speaking the Kaddish Yatom, the prayer for the dead, for themselves as they marched to their death. This is the prayer we speak for our dead, for others. It is a prayer of praise, not of death. And despite his loathing of any prayer praising a God that would allow the abominations to happen, he found himself reciting it as he thought he was about to die, so ingrained it was in him.

So why am I reading these things? I have no idea, they were next in the stack. But being in isolation allows me the space to read them with attention, with care and with thoughtfulness. That is my book report for today. Shalom

What Now?

It is morning, the sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and I feel oddly anxious in this strange unstructured life. I seem always to have something to do and I wonder how that could be. Are these things that I simply ignored when I was working, things I chose to be in denial about or that I just put off until now? Maybe they are the things I filled my nights and weekends with so that I felt that I never had a day off.

How strange to be able to say, “I can do that tomorrow” or “there is no urgency”. But I still find myself thinking I must do it now. A lifetime of structure – I need to rewire my brain.

I am off to Germany and Poland in a few days and people keep saying to me “have fun”. Although I think this trip will be interesting, spiritually fulfilling, educational and emotional, I am not sure it will be exactly fun. It is a trip to visit the places of the holocaust, that horrific time that many people choose to deny or forget just as we forget or ignore the many many genocides that have taken place in our time. There are so many, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Nanking, the Ukraine under Stalin, Armenia all in the last 100 years and many in my lifetime.

I am honored to be able to say Kaddish at the places my people died. I am filled with gratitude to be able to carry the memory of my Grandmother who, as a child, fled Russia with her mother and seven siblings to come to America. And I am proud to know that in a family of mixed and little faith, I carry the faith of my ancestors and represent them at a time critical in the survival of Judaism in America.

I am proud that I recently took a group of young Jewish students on an overnight trip the central purpose of which was to visit a small but powerful holocaust museum about three hours from our home Temple. We had fun too, but the impact it made on some of those young people was stunning.

So, in my unstructured life, I sat down at my computer to write, told Alexa to play some bebop and this is what I wrote.

Shalom

Devarim – sticks and stones

This  week we begin the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy or Devarim which means words in Hebrew.  We are standing at the Jordan, waiting to cross over and enter the promised land.  Moses will never make that crossing, and he chooses to prepare the people by recounting the stories of the trials and hardships that brought them to this moment.  We are called the people of the book, we should be called the people of the story; the people of words.  We recount our history at every chance, for good reasons.  We say of the Holocaust’s racism, bigotry and murder “never again”.  How to avoid it if it fades from memory?  How will our children remember our history if we don’t retell it?

It is all about communication, though, isn’t it? And we strive for the right words to contain our feelings, to express our desires, to describe our history.  And this week a Jewish girl named Aly Raisman did her brilliant Olympic floor routine to Hava Negila on the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.  Her own re-telling, her own “never forget”.

In our daily lives we use words carelessly, we toss them around with little thought.  But when we have strong feelings, we struggle to find the right words, words that are adequate.  And nowhere do words seem so careless as in our current presidential politics.  Things are being said that would have previously been unthinkable, and should be still.  The words reek of that racism and bigotry and give rise, as historically, to violence.

Moses chooses his moment to recount, to use words to prepare the people, for building, for memory, for empowering them, for providing rules/structure.  Shouldn’t we take this moment to disavow the childhood admonition about sticks and stones? To remember that words can hurt us, can be destructive? We should take Moses’ example and use our words, and our recounting, to  empower each other.  In our national politic we should use our words to disavow ignorance and hate, deception and lies.  In our personal lives we should use our words to strengthen and honor each other.   We need all our strength as we stand ever on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to enter the promised land hand in hand, a people of words.